WTO rules against India poultry import ban

Ruling confirms SPS measures must be based on science and could pave the way for India market reopening.

A World Trade Organization panel agreed with the United States regarding non-tariff barriers must be based in science, which sets a strong precedent moving forward.

Tuesday the U.S. Trade Representative office reported that the WTO panel sided with the U.S. in its dispute challenging India’s ban on various U.S. agricultural products – such as poultry meat, eggs, and live pigs – allegedly to protect against avian influenza.  

“Our farmers and producers deserve a level playing field – and this dispute reflects that we will accept nothing less,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.   “I am pleased that the WTO Panel determined that India’s ban on poultry is inconsistent with its commitments under the WTO SPS Agreement.  USDA will work in close partnership with USTR to ensure that U.S. poultry producers and processors have access to this important market.”

India placed a ban on U.S. poultry products in 2007 under the guise of preventing low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI), but produced no scientific evidence to support the ban’s validity. In response, USTR initiated consultations in 2012, refuting India’s claims that LPAI will mutate into a highly pathogenic form of the virus.

The United States, however, has not had an outbreak of high pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) since 2004, while during that same interval India has had over 90 HPAI outbreaks.  The only other type of avian influenza detected in the United States since 2004 is low pathogenic avian influenza – an often symptomless disease that the United States can find because it maintains a state-of-the-art surveillance system to detect animal diseases.  The United States has consistently explained to India that, as reflected in relevant international standards, there is no scientific basis to ban imports of U.S. agricultural products.

Strong precedent

USTR noted that this is the first time a WTO panel has ruled on Article 6 of the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement). “We consider this a very important decision,” one USTR official noted. “WTO panel affirmed every single complaint we brought which is very important for our goal of ensuring there is sufficient science behind any SPS measure.”

The panel said India’s restrictions are more trade restrictive than necessary since India could reasonably adopt international standards for the control of avian influenza instead of imposing a ban. The ban also constitutes as disguised restriction on international trade.

At the negotiating table, the finding shows that the U.S. is first willing to take on difficult barriers and that when they do, they win, the USTR official added.

“India’s ban was thinly veiled protectionism,” added USA Poultry & Egg Export Council (USAPEEC) President James Sumner and National Chicken Council President Michael Brown. “This ruling should send a signal to India and other countries that have placed similar bans on U.S. poultry that they are inconsistent with WTO rules and with guidelines established by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

Steps ahead

Under WTO rules, either party may request adoption of the panel report by the WTO within 60 days of the release of the report, and the report would be adopted unless an appeal is filed.  If the report is appealed, WTO rules provide that the WTO Appellate Body must issue its report within 90 days of the filing of the appeal.

A USTR official said it is their expectation that India will comply with the ruling, and they have not heard from the Indian government as to whether it intends to appeal.

The industry estimates that U.S. exports to India of just poultry meat alone could easily exceed $300 million a year once India’s restrictions are removed – and are likely to grow substantially in the future as India’s demand for high quality protein increases, USTR said.

Poultry groups also recognized the ruling does not give the U.S. automatic access to India’s market, which is estimated to be approximately 2.6 million metric tons of U.S. poultry annually, and is growing at a rate of 8% to 10% per year.

“We recognize that work remains to open India’s market – but this ruling is an important step toward securing that objective. We hope that the new Indian administration will be amenable to working with the U.S. government and industry to remove all restrictions and allow access for U.S. poultry in the near future,” Sumner and Brown concluded.

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